In 2019, I had the memorable experience of visiting the Texas Capitol as part of an amazing team. And although I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with some of my fantastic coworkers again this year, that’s not what I’ll remember about the 2021 session. In the time of COVID-19, what’s stuck with me is a different experience--watching bills travel through the legislative process from behind my laptop screen.
While it’s still pretty exciting to track the process through the live feed and the trusty “txlege” hashtag on Twitter, it can be hard to know exactly what’s going on from a distance. That’s why I wanted to share more about how the legislative session works in Texas.
In my last “beginner’s guide” I shared what I’ve learned about the legislative process and how to follow a bill from its introduction to the day it becomes law. Today, with just over a week left in Texas’ 87th regular session, we’ll zero in on the end of that process.
As a reminder, bills can be filed in either of the two chambers (the House or Senate). They’re pre-filed before session officially kicks off and filed any time within the first 60 days; this year, the deadline to file bills was March 12. Bills get discussed and passed in relevant committees before heading to the floor to be heard by the full chamber. They can also be changed with amendments, which must be approved by legislators and then passed as part of the bill.
Last week, the House hit its deadline to pass bills that had originated there. You may remember some late-night social media posts as some of TCJC’s priority bills were voted out of the House just before time ran out! Now those bills head to the Senate, where they follow the same process. If there’s enough time and leaders want the bills to keep moving, they’ll be heard in relevant committees, then go to the full Senate for consideration.
Sometimes a committee will want to make substantial changes – but instead of adding amendments, they’ll introduce a committee substitute (nicknamed a “committee sub”). This can be a changed version of the bill or new text altogether, and sometimes it’s the text of a similar bill that did not move through the process as quickly. Either way, the committee sub must deal with the same issue as the bill it’s replacing.
If the bill passed by the Senate is the same as the one that was previously passed by the House, the bill is in its final form. But if it’s sent back to the original chamber with amendments or as a committee sub, the Senate and House have to work out a version they both agree on. Sometimes, the original chamber will agree to the new amendments and move the bill forward. If not, the bill will go to a conference committee.
Conference committees include five legislators from each chamber, and they’re chosen to hammer out differences behind closed doors. The committee prepares a report that needs approval from a majority of the conferees (conference committee members). Then that report must be approved by both chambers. This process happens quickly, and it’s something to look out for in the next week!
Once the bill is in its final form, it gets enrolled. That means it’s prepared for signature by the leaders of each chamber (this year, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in the Senate and Speaker Dade Phelan in the House). After they sign, the bill heads to the Governor’s desk. The Governor can sign the bill into law, let it pass into law without his signature, or veto it, which prevents it from becoming law unless two-thirds of each chamber votes to override the veto.
The Governor’s options also depend on timing. On the 140th and final day of Texas’ legislative session, the Legislature adjourns Sine Die. (I wish I could tell you the proper pronunciation of this Latin phrase, but like many things in Austin, we pronounce it based on tradition – “SIGN-ee DYE” – instead of correct translation.) After that final day, which is May 31 this year, we enter the 20-day veto period, during which the Governor must take action on each bill that’s advanced to his desk.
For more information on the entire process, check out this guide from the Texas House of Representatives. Remember to stay tuned to TCJC’s social media, especially our Facebook and Twitter pages, to get updates on the justice bills we’re tracking this session. Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for more TCJC emails and blog posts with results from this session over the summer!